For Many Anglers, The 'Good Old Days' for Eastern Lake Erie Walleye Fishing is NOW
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Note: Blog Includes Video.
Anglers frequently ask each other, “What’s your favorite fish to catch?” The followup question is often, “What’s your favorite fish to eat?” For me, at least in terms of freshwater fishing, my favorite fish to catch is the smallmouth bass. It's a fish that's all fight. A tenacious smallie fights as hard, pound-for-pound, as anything swimming and, at certain times of the year, readily leaps and tail-walks. Really, though, any fish willing to take the bait gets my face smiling.
When it comes to eating, though, two freshwater fish stand out: walleye and yellow perch, both part of the same family. I especially like yellow perch when caught through the ice or just after the ice goes out. These fish have firm, flaky, sweet meat and take to a variety of cooking styles. One of my walleye and perch favorites is to dip the fillets (or sometimes whole, cleaned fish when it comes to perch) in an egg wash and then dredge them in Italian-seasoned fine bread crumbs (Progresso makes a great version) and a little Panko. I then pan fry them in a light oil. Friends, especially those in the southern half of the United States, who have never had the opportunity to try them usually agree after sampling that they are, indeed, some of the best tasting fish. Walleye cheek chowder is also tasty!
Many northern locales from North Dakota to New Hampshire have waters where you can find these species, but one of my favorite destinations to target all three of these fish is eastern Lake Erie. Dunkirk, New York is about 7.5 hours by car from my home near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and, for me, the chance to catch ample and big specimens of these fish makes it a repeat destination.
August 6 (two weeks ago) found me again with Dream catcher Sportfishing, aboard Capt. Jim Steel’s, comfortable, extremely well-equipped 31-foot Tiara boat. Soon after leaving Dunkirk Harbor, we were finding fish. A couple were just an inch or two over the 15-inch length minimum for a keeper, but most were in the 18-23-inch range, fish that offered chunky, succulent fillets. We eagerly cranked in a four-person limit of walleye (24 fish) before thinking about heading to deeper water to hunt the bottom for lake trout. We had lost a couple lakers that hit on our two downriggers but cut through the line after a couple of minutes of fighting. The seemingly ever-present Lake Erie winds had other ideas, though, and we headed back into the Dunkirk Pier fish cleaning house. One walleye I boated was a personal best 29-inch, 7-pounder.
The walleye seemed bigger and chunkier this year, not surprising since the massive lake is estimated to hold 41 million or more of the toothy predators and fish grow a few inches and a pound or two every year. Erie had a record walleye spawning season in 2003 and highly productive hatches in 2014 and 2015. The lake’s prolific western and central basin also had excellent spawning success in 2018.
“Right now is probably the most phenomenal fishing I’ve seen in my lifetime. You can go out in anywhere to 75 to 90 feet of water and from here (Dunkirk) to the Pennsylvania state line and in two hours catch three limits of walleye, 18 fish in the boat,” said Capt. Larry Jones, president of the Eastern Lake Erie Charter Boat Association at a luncheon celebrating this region's superb fishery.
Jason Robinson, New York’s fisheries biologist for Lake Erie, explained that Lake Erie is split into regions for management purposes, with the western portion managed for commercial and recreational fisheries. The eastern portion, from just west of Dunkirk to Buffalo, is recreational. Anglers can keep 6 walleye a day. The lake has so many walleye there was, reportedly, talk earlier this year of raising the limit. Fisheries management is always a balancing act. Walleye numbers are incredible. Perch numbers are respectable. Longtime area anglers told me that baitfish numbers, especially valued emerald shiners, seem to be down. Fisheries managers look for cause and effects.
Right now, though, if you like catching walleye, these will likely be the years some will recall as "the good old days," especially in the eastern basin of the lake. Here is one reason why summertime walleye fishing in the eastern basin is so great. At any given time, about 2.3 million of the western basin’s fish are in the area, on top of the millions already resident off New York. Researchers are using acoustic telemetry to better understand walleye movement. Hundreds of fish were tagged and tracked over the last five years. The studies prove that spawning fish in the lake’s western basin quickly move out into the main lake and migrate east. By July and August, many of these fish are in waters off New York, where they stay until November before heading back west to spawn.“One large male walleye travels the 200-mile length of the lake every year after spawning in the west. He does this year-after-year,” Robinson said. Lake Erie walleyes that spawn in the eastern basin, however, tend to stay in that region. Those fish aren’t vulnerable, it appears, to the commercial fishing taking place in the central basin or the huge recreational fishery in Ohio. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation offers a fishing hotline anglers can check out to see what's biting and where.
My trip was a three-day venture. Day two had me joining fellow outdoor writer Wade Robertson of Pennsylvania aboard Capt. Greg Reusch’s Ranger bass boat on a quest for lunker smallmouth. My goal was something in the 6-pound range. We began by fishing tube lures over rocky bottoms, setting up drifts over any structure we found. We caught a few fish, but they were small. The amiable Reusch then shared that he had some live crawfish, smallmouth candy. We readily swapped lures for the real deal.
Smallmouth bass, although none approaching my desired weight class, loved the crawdads – when they could get to them. Hungry freshwater drum, called “sheepshead” up north, walloped our baits at a rate three-to-one greater than the smallies. We’re not complaining – the drum hit and fought hard, with some reaching 8 pounds. Our biggest smallmouth was 3.5 pounds. Catching the drum had me recalling boyhood expeditions in Vermont, accompanying my grandfather Walter, my fishing mentor, to the Winooski River. We'd occasionally keep a drum and he would remove the otolith, the bony-like inner ear structures that help the fish stay balanced. Some would have a mother of pearl quality to them. He told me how Indians living near the river would sometimes string the otoliths together to make jewelry, such as necklaces or bracelets.
Reusch has been a longtime competitive angler, once fishing on the old Red Man Tournament Trail circuit. He is now getting into a part-time guiding business, offering trips throughout western New York for bass, pike, walleye and perch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 716-238-0984
Jim Klein Gives Overview of His Patented New Walleye Lure
The final walleye excursion came with Capt. Jim Klein of Eye-Fish Charters aboard his 24-foot SeaSwirl Striper boat. Weather was iffy; well, not even iffy. It was going to storm; it was just a question of when. Predictions said thunder and lightning would arrive around 10 a.m. Winds were already robust and some charters with considerably bigger boats cancelled. Fearless (some would say crazy) outdoors writers that we are, my buddy Wade and I looked at the radar and forecast and figured we’d try it for a couple hours; this, of course, after talking with the Klein and making sure he, too, thought it would be doable. The plan was to ease out of the Hidden Harbor Marina on Cattaraugus Creek and head several miles west, almost directly into the teeth of the two-to-four-foot waves. We would then reverse course and leisurely troll with the wind at our back.
Images Below: Stickbait sampler (left) and fish caught with worm harness (right)
In contrast to Steel’s setup, which mainly employed “stickbait” lures, Klein set out a Great Lakes favorite called a “worm harness,” which basically involves two or three hooks in the terminal set with one nightcrawler rigged along them in a linear fashion. Some harness lures have beads, including beads that glow. All have spinning blades. Klein is an engineer and specializes in injection molding. We fished with lures he designed and recently patented. They feature a plastic willow blade weightefd with an encased ball bearing. Klein said anglers often can’t troll harnesses and stickbaits simultaneously due to the trolling speed variance needed for each lure to behave optimally. He designed his blades so they closely match the trolling properties of the stickbaits, allowing anglers to have more varied options. It's technical, cool stuff.
Did I mention I hate it when the weatherman is right? It was rough enough that we cranked in many of the fish while sitting down. Klein had to deftly maintain his balance while trying to net the fish at the back of the boat. We were starting to mark fish in earnest on the electronics when, at about 9:45, Klein showed us the radar image on his phone. We looked to the western sky. We were about to get hammered, soon. We pulled lines and raced to the shore, beating the fierce storm by about 15 minutes. Still, we managed nearly a half-limit of walleye.
I’ve had friends ask me if we were mostly trolling. I said, “Yeah,” sometimes prompting a discernible lip curl by my inquisitor. Yes, I know the captain and mate are catching the fish and we “anglers” get to reel them in. It really isn’t much different than any spring charter trip for trophy striped bass or most offshore outings. I view it as a learning experience. Most of these skippers are eager to tell what they’re doing and why and how they’re doing it. When weather and wave conditions are right, you can jig for walleye. For me, though, I can do all the personal casting and hunting looking for the great bass, muskie, steelhead and other species this area has in abundance. When it comes to walleye, cranking a trolling-caught fish is just fine!
One regret from the trip was not staying long enough to tour the Dunkirk Lighthouse and its onsite maritime museum. The light still shines brightly and it is an iconic scene coming and going from Dunkirk Harbor. It's definitely on the list for next year -- after we catch those bigger walleye, that is... For more about all to see and do in this beautiful part of western New York, check out the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau web site.